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Look him in the face

Times Staff Writer

Amedeo Modigliani has two claims to fame.

As an artist, he is the painter of highly stylized portraits whose melancholy subjects have long necks, round shoulders and almond-shaped eyes. As a personality, he is the dashing, Italian-born, Paris-based bohemian who died of tubercular meningitis at 35, on Jan. 24, 1920. Two days later, his pregnant mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne, threw herself out of a fifth-floor window, leaving their 14-month-old daughter an orphan.

As aficionados of Parisian cemetery lore know, Modigliani was buried at Pere Lachaise, the eternal home of France’s most luminous artists, writers, thinkers and public figures. Hebuterne was laid to rest in a less prestigious setting. But in 1930, her remains were exhumed and buried with Modigliani’s.

This is the stuff of which art world legends and tourist treks to Pere Lachaise are made. But it doesn’t impress the scholars, curators and critics who build artists’ reputations through research, writing and exhibitions. Modigliani’s iconic images are adored by the public and command enormous prices -- up to $16.7 million at auction. They also occupy places of honor at major museums, but the artist tends to be given short shrift in professional circles.

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Grove’s 34-volume Dictionary of Art credits him with creating some of “the finest portraits in early 20th century art” but grants him less than three pages -- compared with 18 on Pablo Picasso, 11 on Henri Matisse and five on Georges Braque. A standard textbook, H.W. and Anthony F. Janson’s 998-page “History of Art,” doesn’t even mention Modigliani.

“He is one of those artists who is out there in the public aura but is not really known,” says Carol S. Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And much of what is known is untrue, says Marc Restellini, a Modigliani authority who directs the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris. “He was an intellectual artist and an important member of the avant-garde, but after his death, his image changed. He was under a malediction, a curse.”

Modigliani had a string of love affairs and -- like many fellow artists -- indulged in alcohol and drugs. But Restellini says that “disputable anecdotes” and “apocryphal sources” created a “sulfurous legend” that portrays him as a one-note artist who lived hard and died young. Popular as that image may be, Restellini adds, it has obscured his artistic achievements and deprived him of the attention he deserves.

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But Modigliani is finally getting his due in a parade of projects that has surprised even his most ardent admirers. Three large traveling exhibitions, two in the United States and one in Europe, have taken up the challenge of examining his aesthetic contributions, and two films about the artist are in the works.

First came “Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse,” a show consisting of 54 paintings, drawings and sculptures by Modigliani and an additional 22 works by his contemporaries, which will open next Sunday at LACMA. Organized for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., by curator Kenneth Wayne, the exhibition opened there in October, then moved to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, before coming to Los Angeles for its final engagement.

No sooner did that show get going than “Modigliani: The Melancholy Angel” opened in Paris. The 120-piece retrospective, billed as the largest exhibition ever of the artist’s work, is the creation of Restellini. After its inaugural run at the Musee du Luxembourg, the show traveled to the Palazzo Reale in Milan, where it will continue through July 6.

As those shows are wrapping up their tours, the Jewish Museum in New York is preparing to put yet another view of Modigliani on the road: an exploration of the artist’s heritage as an Italian Sephardic Jew. Organized by the museum’s curator, Mason Klein, and tentatively titled “Modigliani,” the 60-piece show will debut at the Jewish Museum, May 21 to Sept. 19, 2004, then travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

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Meanwhile, Modigliani is making his way from art museums to movie theaters. Bauer Martinez Studios in Largo, Fla., recently went into production of a film starring Andy Garcia. The author of the screenplay, Mick Davis, is directing it in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. Sergio Premoli, an Italian artist who lives in Los Angeles and has compiled a few minor film credits as an actor, also has written a script for a Modigliani film, which he says he plans to start shooting in Rome in September.

Why the sudden interest in Modigliani? No one can account for the convergence of all these projects, but scholars offer several reasons for why it has taken so long.

Some contend that the popular version of the artist’s life has gotten in the way of serious study. Beyond that, Modigliani’s independent nature and the fact that his figurative art is at odds with School of Paris abstraction have cast him as an eccentric character on the fringe of his era.

“Scholars of high Modernism have tended to pooh-pooh Modigliani a bit because he isn’t so evidently cutting-edge for that moment,” says Eliel, who has coordinated LACMA’s presentation of “Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse.”

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But “he wasn’t a crazy loner,” says Wayne of the Albright-Knox Museum, who has studied Modigliani for 15 years. “He was part of a community. He has been considered like Van Gogh, sad and unrecognized, but that’s not true. While I was working on my catalog, I found that his work was in 18 exhibitions during his lifetime -- in London, Zurich and New York as well as in Paris -- and I have discovered others since it was published.”

He was often sickly

Born in Livorno, Italy, on July 12, 1884, the youngest of four children, Modigliani didn’t go to school until he was 10, but not for lack of means. Coddled by his mother, Eugenie Garsin Modigliani, and educated in art, literature and philosophy by his erudite grandfather, Isaac Garsin, the boy grew up in an environment that nurtured his artistic proclivities.

His first formal training in art -- drawing lessons begun when he was 14 -- came to a halt when he contracted typhoid fever and developed pulmonary problems. Upon his recovery, he gave up other studies to devote himself to art. But he fell ill again in 1900, suffering the first of the tubercular attacks that eventually took his life. During his convalescence, his mother took him to southern Italy and on a tour of Italian museums. When his health improved, he studied art in Florence and Venice, then took off for Paris, the Mecca of the avant-garde.

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Upon his arrival, in 1906, he enrolled at the Academie Colarossi and rented a studio in Montmartre. Except for a year in Nice during World War I, Modigliani lived in Paris for the rest of his life. Supported by his family, dealers Paul Guillaume and Leopold Zborowski, and Paul Alexandre, a young doctor who collected his work, he eked out a living but often existed on the edge of poverty. He also moved frequently, but he became a prominent figure in the expatriate artistic community of Montparnasse.

The Left Bank neighborhood was a special place for foreign artists in the first decades of the 20th century, says Wayne, whose exhibition places Modigliani in a cosmopolitan creative enclave. Among the international mix of artists who gathered there were Picasso of Spain, Giorgio de Chirico of Italy, Elie Nadelman of Poland, Jules Pascin of Bulgaria, Diego Rivera of Mexico, Joseph Csaky of Hungary, Piet Mondrian of the Netherlands, Constantin Brancusi of Romania, Jacques Lipchitz of the United States and Chaim Soutine of Russia. Works by many of them are included in the LACMA show.

Many of them also became subjects of Modigliani’s portraits. Picasso appears in one painting and two drawings. Essays in the exhibition catalogs point out correspondences between Modigliani’s and Picasso’s work that have been overlooked.

“They have been perceived as oil and water,” Wayne says, “but they had a lot to do with each other and exhibited together.”

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Among Modigliani’s contributions was his early interest in Egyptian and African art, which influenced Picasso, Restellini says. “He was an intellectual. He looked. He studied. Then he made a synthesis of Eastern, Western and African art.”

During his first years in Paris, Modigliani’s goal was to be a sculptor, and his acquaintance with Brancusi probably offered encouragement. But Modigliani abandoned stone carving in 1914 and turned to painting, apparently at the behest of dealer Guillaume, who may have thought there would be a better market for his paintings.

Scandalous paintings of nudes

An exhibition of Modigliani’s first series of nudes, in 1917, was a scandalous affair, with Parisian police threatening to confiscate the paintings on the grounds of indecency. That show has become a part of what Restellini calls the Modigliani legend. But the artist ultimately became much better known for his portrayals of artists, lovers, friends and dealers.

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These likenesses border on caricature, but he was most interested in conveying the spirit of each individual, Restellini says.

“There’s a famous story about his portrait of the Surrealist painter Leopold Survage, whom he painted with one eye open and one eye closed,” the curator says. “When Survage asked him why, he said, ‘Because with one eye you see the world outside, and with the other you see inside yourself.’ When Modigliani painted children, they usually have open eyes because they are watching the world. But when he painted artists, poets and other people he considered exceptional, they have one eye open and one eye closed.”

And Modigliani wasn’t afraid of expressing his opinion. A gray-green portrait of Russian Cubist sculptor Leon Indenbaum is “very cold” and includes his name with one of the letters upside down because “he didn’t like Indenbaum or the art he represented,” Restellini says.

With so many works by Modigliani on view and so much new research in print, other theories are likely to emerge. But for now, Restellini is pleased to have presented a fully fleshed-out portrait of the artist for the public and specialists to consider.

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“I think it is important to change the image of Modigliani, and I’m sure my exhibition is helping to do that,” he says.

For Wayne, the point was to weave Modigliani into his artistic milieu and to show him at his best: “I wanted to present great works so that people would say, ‘Wow, what a great painter. What a great sculptor.’ ”

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‘Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse’

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Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Opens next Sunday. Hours: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Ends: Sept. 28

Price: Adults, $7; students 18 and older with ID and seniors, $5; children 5 and younger, free. The second Tuesday of every month is free to all.

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Contact: (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org


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